On Feb. 1, 1954, at 3:55 p.m., a Pan American B-377 Stratocruiser arrived at Haneda airport. Unlike your average plane, passengers could descend a spiral staircase and have drinks at a bar. After a bit of liquor and chatting, passengers could then catch some shut eye in a single bed, then wake up and get ready for the day by using spacious dressing rooms. Such was life for Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe as they made their way to Tokyo via San Francisco and Honolulu in a plane marketed as a “flying hotel.”
DiMaggio was a 39-year-old retired major league baseball player who held one of the sport’s most historic records — a 56-game hitting streak. Monroe was a 27-year-old Hollywood movie star — beloved by millions around the world for her sweet yet sexy demeanor. Seeking refuge from intense media scrutiny, this newlywed celebrity couple, for better or worse, accepted a three-week baseball junket invitation, their schedule put together by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper in coordination with the Japanese professional baseball league.
As the couple, along with Lefty O’Doul — the so-called “father of modern Japanese baseball” due to his pre- and post-war efforts to teach and popularize the sport as well as the first American elected to the Japanese baseball hall of fame — and his wife Jean, walked halfway down the mobile staircase, what they saw in front of them bordered on pandemonium. Thousands of admirers and dozens of photographers doing everything they could to catch a glimpse of Marilyn Monroe. If the quartet chose to walk through the crowd, they surely would have been trampled. Security officers instead chose to guide the group back onto the plane and down into its cargo hatch. They popped out on the other side where an open convertible waited to take them to the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward. The trip to the hotel from Haneda now takes 25 minutes, but with crowds blocking traffic and highway infrastructure not yet in place, the DiMaggios and O’Douls finally arrived at their hotel around 10 p.m. — after about six hours of waving.
That night, the crowds outside the Imperial Hotel simply would not disperse until Marilyn Monroe at least waved to them from their balcony. According to Monroe biographer Roger Kahn in his 1988 book “Joe and Marilyn,” the movie star self-consciously felt “like I was a dictator,” but she finally stepped onto the balcony and greeted the crowd once more.
At a press conference the next day meant to help ignite DiMaggio’s baseball tour, reporters all but ignored “Joltin Joe” and instead asked Monroe, the 1953 Playboy centerfold and star of "Niagara," blunt and unprofessional questions. According to Monroe biographer Donald Spoto, the press conference went a little like this:
Reporter (via translator): Do you agree with the 1948 Kinsey report on human sexual behavior?
Monroe: Not fully.
Reporter: Do you sleep naked?
Monroe: No comment.
Reporter: When you walk, is it a natural walk?
Monroe: I’ve been walking ever since I was six months old.
Reporter: What kind of fur are you wearing right now?
Monroe: Fox — and not the Twentieth Century kind.
Reporter: Do you wear underclothes?
Monroe: (somewhat irritated) I’ll buy a kimono tomorrow.
For Monroe, this was now her life when visiting other countries. As she puts it in her abbreviated as-told-to Ben Hecht autobiography, “My Story”: “My travels have always been of the same kind. No matter where I’ve gone or why I’ve gone there, it ends up that I never see anything. Becoming a movie star is living on a merry-go-round… you don’t see natives or new scenery. You see chiefly the same press agent, the same sort of interviewers and the same picture layouts of yourself… ”
In this isolated lifestyle, Monroe and DiMaggio remained in the Imperial Hotel the majority of the time that first week. Intensely private, DiMaggio never in his lifetime discussed his romantic relationship with Monroe, but 15 years after DiMaggio’s death — in 2014 — a very close friend, Dr Rock Positano, wrote about the electricity between the couple, especially in bed: “When we got together in the bedroom,” DiMaggio told Positano, “It was like the gods were fighting; there were thunderclouds and lightning above us.”
Still, there was hour-by-hour tension between the couple and when an Army general came to the hotel and formally invited Monroe to fly to South Korea and entertain the troops, her excited “Yes!” irritated DiMaggio, who despite a fierce loyalty, couldn’t help but come off as possessive and demanding.
No shopping, Marilyn. The crowds will kill us. — Joe DiMaggio
Before heading out to support the troops in South Korea, Monroe first visited soldiers who had been fighting over in Korea and were now recuperating in Japanese hospitals. Always under heavy security detail, on Feb 11 she visited the Iwakuni City military base south of Hiroshima and then on the Feb 14 traveled to Osaka. She also visited a Tokyo medical center for wounded soldiers.
During her visit, according to Spoto, Monroe was given “a pearl necklace with a diamond clasp” from Emperor Hirohito and Empress Kojun. And, yes, she did shop for that kimono and also visited a geisha house, despite Joe’s concerns about swimming through adoring mobs: “No shopping, Marilyn. The crowds will kill us.” In these brief brushes with Japanese culture, it was difficult for Monroe to feel the nation’s heartbeat. In her memoir, she resigns the country to others she experienced only in passing: “Japan turned out to be another country I never saw.”
She did see a masseuse, however. At the time, she was being treated by Tokujiro Namikoshi, the “founder of modern shiatsu,” for “chronic endometriosis,” a painful condition that can affect the female reproductive system. During this downtime, Monroe always had on hand her favorite perfume. According to writer Pauline Torin, back in 2009 a bottle of Monroe’s Chanel No. 5 was found sewn into a pillowcase by a housekeeper and dated “Feb. 5 1954.”
Besides the daily maniacal desire to meet Monroe, Japanese fans had been falling back in love with baseball for at least six years, thanks in large part to Lefty O’Doul’s ambassadorial attempts to popularize the game after the war had all but extinguished professional baseball in Japan.
In truth, baseball had been a part of Japanese culture ever since the 1870s and was played consistently in universities (Waseda, Keio and Meiji, to name a few). According to O’Doul biographer Dennis Snelling, a 1949 tour by O’Doul’s minor league baseball team, the San Francisco Seals, delivered a much-needed dose of inspiration to a country where “times were tough, with extreme food shortages and whole neighborhoods in ruins.” O’Doul had been bringing big names like DiMaggio to Japan ever since 1931 (including even Babe Ruth… who we will get to one of these months) and while Monroe flew to South Korea with Jean O’Doul, Lefty and Joe traveled across Japan to help teams in the Central League prepare for the 1954 baseball season. One supporting reason why DiMaggio didn’t receive as much attention from the press as his wife stemmed from his visiting Japan and Korea with O’Doul several times since 1951. In a way, Joe’s presence was old news and Japan (and even America, one could argue) had never encountered a woman quite like Marilyn Monroe.
From Feb 16 to 19, Monroe performed at around 10 different military bases in South Korea, including Seoul. She felt “perfectly at ease” in front of thousands of soldiers, men who had been looking at her pin-up calendars and magazine spreads for several years. As she drove the soldiers into a frenzy with songs such as “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and the extremely popular “Do It Again,” the freezing temperatures and windy conditions seemed of no concern. As she told writer Ben Hecht, the soldiers “were all yelling at me at the top of their lungs. I stood smiling at them. It had started snowing. But I felt as warm as if I were standing in a bright sun… I’ve always been frightened by an audience — any audience. My stomach pounds, my head gets dizzy and I’m sure my voice has left me. But standing in the snowfall facing these yelling soldiers, I felt for the first time in my life no fear of anything. I felt only happy.”
There may be a reason why Monroe felt so settled amidst what seems like such an objectifying position. It starts with her lonely and turbulent childhood, where she moved from home to home as a foster child, never really knowing her mother and father. At age 16, in an attempt to stop this carousel of addresses, it was agreed between two families that Norma Jeane Mortenson (Monroe’s real name) marry. The man who agreed, a 21-year-old soldier named Jim Dougherty, saved Monroe from feeling perpetually unwanted. He had a steady job and income, and for two years they lived a conventional life full of common housewife duties.
But as her vocal coach once explained, Monroe’s core was akin to someone “standing in sand.” Due in large part to a flickering childhood, Monroe contained a vulnerable innocence remedied only when she felt wanted and loved. And even that emotion, to “belong,” could be uncomfortable due to her lack of experience with it.
Once Dougherty was shipped overseas during World War II, Monroe gained even more confidence in her looks. Hollywood opportunities soon came, and by the time Dougherty returned, Monroe had newer, grander ambitions. They divorced after four years, but she may very well have recognized Dougherty’s spirit — a conservative soldier who’d rescued her from an unloved childhood — in that audience of yelling men. They were not like the predatory Hollywood studio executives — they were to be trusted, as she had been reminded while visiting the wounded men up close in hospitals in Japan.
When Monroe returned to Japan, she came down with the flu and remained mainly in the Imperial Hotel. She and DiMaggio did eat in Ginza once, at Irene’s Hungaria Restaurant, an “elegant” place to dine. One of the cooks there, Yoshimasa Saito, remembered the couple coming in for a bite in a May 2006 interview with Judit Kawaguchi for The Japan Times: “Mon-chan, as we called her, was more beautiful in person than on film. I only got a glimpse of her because I was busy cooking.”
The DiMaggios’ Japanese tour ended with a thank you sukiyaki dinner in Kobe put on by Central League organizers. On Feb 24, 1954, they flew back to San Francisco and by the end of the year they had divorced. As you can imagine there was speculation, much of it revolving around the same idea, that one of the “greatest baseball players of all-time” couldn’t handle living with the fame of one of the most famous celebrities of the 20th century.
Next month in our Japan Yesterday series, American president and Civil War hero Ulysses S Grant meets 26-year-old Emperor Meiji and travels across Japan by foot, on rickshaw and horseback.
Other stories in the Japan Yesterday series.
Patrick Parr is the author of “The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age.” His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Politico and The Boston Globe, among others.© Japan Today